By the late 19th century the entire African continent had been colonized by Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Spain in what is called the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Later, at the end of the First World War, Germany and Italy were defeated and lost their colonies to the victorious powers.

Colonial governments imposed their own systems of law on African societies, these were often brutal and denied Africans their basic human rights. The colonial economy existed for exploitation and benefited the colonial powers and In the “Scramble for Africa”, the colonial powers had divided the continent into mini-countries. Boundaries cut through cultural, ethnic and economic links. Divisions in colonies were used particularly by the British to ‘divide and rule’.

25 May 1963. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (C) and Ghana's founder and first President Kwame Nkrumah (L) during the formation of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa. Picture source: Getty images

At the end of the Second World War, demands for independence and ‘uhuru’ or freedom from colonial rule swept across Africa, this coupled by the influence of the spread of socialism and the Cold War rivalry led to the rapid political de-colonialisation of Africa.

The newly independent states were faced with formidable tasks, namely building the nation, developing the economy and transforming society, while heavily indebted to Western entities like the World Bank and the International Monetary Funds.

Glossary: Uhuru is the Swahili word for freedom.

The formation and disbanding of the OAU (1963-2002)

It was in this climate that the leaders of the then independent African countries established the Organisation of African Unity on the 25 May 1963 in Addis Adaba, Ethipoia. In short, the organization aimed to promote unity and cohesion among the newly independent African states, to advance their economic development, and to accelerate the liberation of those African nations still under Colonial or White rule. Today the founding of the OAU (25 May) is celebrated and commemorated every year as Africa Day, a day when, regardless of their whereabouts or situations, Africans celebrate the notion of African unity.

Originally 37 independent African States were members of the OAU with the President of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah as the organizations first premier and first president (founders of the OAU). South Africa became the 53rd and last nation to joining the OAU after overcoming Apartheid and electing a new democratic government in 1994. In 1997, OAU members established the African Economic Community (AEC), envisioned as an African common market; the AEC signed an agreement with regional African economic groupings that was intended to lead to harmonization of policies of those common markets. A more radical expansion and transformation of the OAU was adopted at Lomé, Togo, in 2000, in the form of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. The OAU was officially disbanded on 9 July 2002 by its last chairperson, South African President Thabo Mbeki and replaced by the African Union.

“Organisation of African Unity issued a Declaration (the Sirte Declaration) calling for the establishment of an African Union, with a view, inter alia, to accelerating the process of integration in the continent to enable it play its rightful role in the global economy while addressing multifaceted social, economic and political problems compounded as they are by certain negative aspects of globalization”. - Official AU site

The role played by the OAU

The OAU’s aim of total unity proved difficult to achieve as the OAU was largely divided. The former French colonies, still dependent on France, had formed the Monrovia Group, and there was a further split between those which supported the USA and those which supported the USSR in the Cold War of ideologies. The pro-Socialist faction was led by Kwame Nkrumah, while Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast led the pro-capitalists. Because of these divisions, it was difficult for the OAU to take action against states involved in internal conflicts because it could rarely reach an agreement on what was to be done.

The OAU did, however, play a pivotal role in eradicating colonialism and minority rule in Africa. It gave weapons, training and military bases to colonised nations fighting for independence or majority rule. Groups such as the ANC and PAC, fighting Apartheid in South Africa, and ZANU and ZAPU, fighting for the independence of Southern Rhodesia, were aided in their endeavours by the OAU. African harbours were closed to the South African government, and South African aircraft were prohibited from flying over the rest of the continent. In addition the OAU managed to convince the United Nationa (UN) to expel South Africa from bodies like the World Health Organisation.

The OAU also worked with the UN to ease refugee problems. It set up the African Development Bank for economic projects intended to make Africa financially stronger. Although all African countries eventually won their independence, it remained difficult for them to become totally independent of their former colonisers. There was often continued reliance on the former colonial powers for economic aid, which often came with strings attached: loans had to be paid back at high interest-rates, and goods had to be sold to the donor countries at low rates.


  • The Organisation of African Unity [online], available at: [accessed 27 May 2009]
  • The Organisation of African Unity [online], available at: [accessed 27 May 2009]
  • SAHO history classroom: Grade 12 ‘The Quest for Uhuru’ [online], available at: [accessed 27 May 2009]
  • The OAU in a nutshell [online], available at: [accessed 27 May 2009]